Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls, Escaped Slave Turned Union Hero (A Book Review)

Photograph: Robert Smalls, U.S. Civil War Hero 
I wish to make a public confession about reading the book Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls' Escape from Slavery to Union Hero by Cate Lineberry. I approached it with great skepticism. I had read U.S. Civil War books before and none of them really impressed me. In fact, I found many of them down-right boring, mired in the details of military actions – a very "White" and "male" genre.

The story of Robert Smalls in Be Free or Die, which will be published by St. Martin's Press on June 20, 2017, has changed my view. I had certainly read nothing like this before. The spectacular tale of Robert Smalls was not simply that he escaped slavery in South Carolina with his family and a band of other enslaved African Americans, but that he did so by stealing and navigating a Confederate ship into the hands of the Union navy across an armed-military fortified Charleston Harbor.

I'm not being flippant when I reveal that my first thought after reading the book was, why had I never read about Smalls in my history books. Not only was his journey unbelievably courageous, but he was a central character in the Civil War action who would go on to become a U.S. Congressman. An American hero of the U.S. Civil War, Robert Smalls story should not be lost on this generation.

The Great Escape from Slavery

The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls
In 1862, it was a mild May morning in Charleston, South Carolina. The young nation was in its second year of civil war. Robert Smalls was born into slavery among the Gullah, a distinctive community of Africans who had inhabited the coastal regions of the U.S.'s Carolinas since the beginning of slavery in the states -- which is to say from the beginning, In 1862, Smalls was 23 years old and working on a Confederate steamer. He and a crew of fellow Africans had devised a plan to steal a Confederate steamer and arrange to escape with their families across the Charleston Harbor to nearby Union forces.

In Be Free or Die, Lineberry does a crafting an exciting historical tale and chronicling Smalls'  great escape from slavery. She includes highlights of Smalls' remarkable career with the Union forces, such as his becoming the nation's first Black captain of an Army vessel and serving as a five-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives from South Carolina.

As a storyteller, Lineberry does a great job of bringing the reader along for the journey. The reader joins Smalls on each encounter with a Confederate combat ship and is able to take a glimpse into the life of someone who is a wanted by the Confederates, constantly living under the threat of retaliation --  even after the war ended!

The journeys away from South Carolina to the North provides readers insight into the activism of civil society groups boldly assisting the efforts against slavery, such as the work of the well-known Frederick Douglass, but also less well known members of the Black clergy whose church memberships became sanctuaries for Africans escaping slave states. Also a treat are the book's lesser  known historical facts, like Abraham Lincoln's plan to colonize Panama as a resettlement of the newly freed enslaved Africans.

Be Free or Die is an excellent summer read that retells the U.S. Civil War story, but also introduces many to Robert Smalls -- one of the great Civil War heroes.

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